What Doug’s Drowning Taught Me About Living

I worked with Doug for a year before he showed me what I now simply refer to as “the video”.


Until then we had become friends by discussing the merits of certain training ideologies, the importance of professional wrestling during the 1980’s and the legitimacy of Phil Collins as a pop/rock artist (while I argued that any artist with tracks like “Invisible touch” and “Sussudio” shouldn’t be taken seriously, Doug saw things very differently).


Don’t get me wrong, I was well aware that Doug was a bad ass mofo. As a decorated Pararescueman in the United States Air Force, Doug would disappear from the gym for a few months at a time in order to go on missions involving  jumping out of airplanes behind enemy lines in the Middle East and Africa in order to rescue and administer medical aid to injured soldiers.


Not exactly what you would expect from a guy who idolized The Iron Sheik.


This mental fortitude would creep it’s way into Doug’s training as well. While my training partners and I worried about moving the needle on our 3-rep max back squats, Doug would put on an 80-pound weight vest and do step ups. For an hour. Without breaks.

This is Doug. Think twice before asking him to “work in”.

So it should have come as no surprise that “the video” also put Doug’s remarkable will and gutsiness on display. Yet, when I watched it, it did hit me by surprise. Like open-mouthed, jaw-on-the -floor surprise. In fact, it’s been over 2 years since I watched it and the memory is one I still can’t shake.


Without really thinking it through, someone at the Air Force figured it would be a good idea to record the final stage of Doug’s selection – mundanely named “extended training days” – in the hopes of using the footage as part of a recruitment video to attract future candidates. The video features a lot of mentally and physically grueling challenges such as digging around the desert while wearing goggles filled with sand.


But the clip that got my attention took place in a swimming pool and featured Doug and his fellow recruits leaping off the deck at the instructor’s command and swimming underwater the entire length until popping up on the other side to perform push-ups during their ‘rest periods’. And, while a constant state of push-ups and underwater swims seems plenty daunting, Doug told me that while it was happening they had no idea how long they would have to perform the exercise.


This may not seem like a big deal until you put it into context. If I am training you and, say, we are doing a moderately heavy set of bench press, but I don’t tell you how many reps I want you to perform or how many reps you have left…


“Just keep going until I tell you to stop,” I say.


…you will absolutely panic once fatigue sets in. And, while there is certainly risk involved in failing a bench press, it’s not the risk of drowning – which was exactly what Doug was facing.


Speaking of drowning, that’s actually what happened. While in the middle of the exercise the camera quickly shoots over to a supervisor jumping into the pool to pull out a recruit who lost consciousness during the underwater swim.


That recruit happened to be Doug. In what he referred to as a shallow-water blackout, Doug’s seemingly lifeless body was being dragged to the edge of the pool to be resuscitated.


Upon regaining consciousness, still pale and with dead fish eyes, one of the officers asks Doug if he wants to quit.


Now, I’ve since learned that saying you want to quit during this process doesn’t mean “yes, please let me take a 5 minute break to contemplate that I almost died and then I’ll rejoin the group.” Saying you quit, any time you are asked, means that you no longer want to be part of the program and your selection process comes to an end.


That’s the point of these test, really. Sure, they are vetting you to see if you can handle the physical demands but more importantly they are seeing if you have the mental toughness to withstand the adversity that you are sure to face out in the field.


Back to Doug. He was dead just 40 seconds ago and now he’s being asked if he wants to quit. This next moment is the part that has stuck with me and questions a lot of my own self-perception of how stubborn, tough or determined I am. He slowly shakes his head “no” and jumps back in the water.


It’s quite possibly the most brave thing I’ve ever seen.


I’ve already told you how the story ends for Doug. He becomes a Pararescueman, serves in several tours, saves countless lives and is ultimately named Non-Commissioned Officer Of The Year which, apparently, is big enough of a deal that his picture currently hangs in the Pentagon.
For me, well, when something sticks with you for years I think it’s worth trying to figure out why. And the more I think about, there are two really strong life lessons that I’ve taken from “the video”.


The first is that I’m not nearly as bad-ass as I think I am. And probably none of us are. Listen, there’s nothing wrong with feeling good about a squat PR or a 300 pound bench press or being on the top of your gym’s leader board for a 1K row. And getting a promotion or a raise or a new job or finally being able to afford that new car is awesome. Certainly go out and celebrate. God knows we need things to be happy about.


But when I think back on the video, on Doug’s lifeless eyes as he jumps back in the water, my accomplishments seem somewhat ordinary in comparison. I don’t think I’m being hard on myself here nor do I even think this is a bad thing. It’s good to have your ego in check and seeing someone else do something that you are pretty certain you wouldn’t be able to do yourself is a great way to take yourself down a peg. It’s also a great motivator to continue working and improving yourself. 


Which leads me to the paradox of the second lesson: we can do a lot more than we think we are capable of. The limits we put on ourselves are usually our own. Watching Doug make the decision to jump back in the water rather than quit reminds me that we are all just scratching the surface of our capabilities.


The Navy SEAL David Goggins put it best.


“When your mind is telling you you’re done, you’re really only 40% done,” according to Goggins. It’s a simple way of quantifying the fact that we can do way, way more than we believe we can.


And that is the hope that comes through having watched my friend drown. That somehow, someday, I too, without hesitation will learn how to nod my head ‘yes’ and jump back in the water.